August 03, 2018
Jerry and Rita Alter kept to themselves. They were a lovely couple, neighbors in the small New Mexico town of Cliff would later tell reporters. But no one knew much about them.
They may have been hiding a decades-old secret, pieces of which are now just emerging.
After the couple died, a stolen Willem de Kooning painting with an estimated worth of $160 million was discovered in their bedroom.
More than 30 years ago, that same painting disappeared the day after Thanksgiving from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.
And Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that a family photo had surfaced, showing that the day before the painting vanished, the couple was, in fact, in Tucson.
The next morning, a man and a woman would walk into the museum and then leave 15 minutes later. A security guard had unlocked the museum’s front door to let a staff member into the lobby, curator Olivia Miller told NPR. The couple followed. Since the museum was about to open for the day, the guard let them in.
The man walked up to the museum’s second floor while the woman struck up a conversation with the guard. A few minutes later, he came back downstairs, and the two abruptly left, according to the NPR interview and other media reports.
Sensing that something wasn’t right, the guard walked upstairs. There, he saw an empty frame where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” had hung.
At the time, the museum had no surveillance cameras. Police found no fingerprints. One witness described seeing a rust-color sports car drive away but didn’t get the license plate number. For 31 years, the frame remained empty.
In 2012, Jerry Alter passed away. His widow, Rita Alter, died five years later at 81.
After their deaths, the painting was returned to the museum. The FBI is investigating the theft.
Did the quiet couple who lived in a three-bedroom ranch on Mesa Road steal “Woman-Ochre” and get away with it?
De Kooning, who died in 1997, was one of the most prominent painters of the midcentury abstract expressionist movement. “Woman III,” another painting in the same series as “Woman-Ochre,” sold for $137.5 million in 2006. The works of de Kooning remain among the most marketable in the world.
The Alters had moved to Cliff (population 293) in the late 1970s or early 1980s, according to the Silver City Daily Press. H. Jerome Alter, who went by Jerry, had been a professional musician and a teacher in New York City schools before retiring to New Mexico, he wrote under “About the author” in “Aesop’s Fables Set in Verse,” a book he published in 2011.
“His primary avocation has been adventure travel,” the biographical sketch says, noting that he had visited “over 140 countries on all continents, including both polar regions.”
Rita Alter, who died in 2017 at the age of 81, had worked as a speech pathologist at the local school district after the couple moved to New Mexico, the Daily Press reported. Her former co-workers remembered her as “pleasant but quiet,” a friendly woman who was good with children but didn’t volunteer much information about her life.
In 2011, a year before his death, also at the age of 81, Jerry published a book of short stories, “The Cup and the Lip: Exotic Tales.” The stories were “an amalgamation of actuality and fantasy,” he wrote in the preface. Though none were literary masterpieces, one stands out in the wake of the de Kooning discovery.
“The Eye of the Jaguar,” concerns itself with Lou, a security guard at an art museum. One day, a middle-aged woman and her 14-year-old granddaughter show up. The older woman asks Lou about the history of a prized emerald on display. Six months later, she and her granddaughter return, then leave in a rush.
“Wow, those two seem to be in a hurry, most unusual for visitors to a place such a this,” Lou thinks. He reinspects the room and realizes the emerald is gone. Running to the door, he sees the pair speeding away and runs out to stop them. The older woman floors the accelerator, crashing into Lou and killing him. Then the two speed off, leaving behind “absolutely no clues which police could use to even begin a search for them!”
Jerry Alter’s fictional tale ends with a description of the emerald sitting in an empty room. “And two pairs of eyes, exclusively, are there to see!” it concludes.
He could just as easily have been describing the de Kooning. But nobody thought of that until the painting was discovered in the Alters’ bedroom, where it had been positioned in such a way that you couldn’t see it unless you were inside with the door shut.
After Rita Alter died, her nephew, Ron Roseman, was named executor of the estate. He put the house on the market and began liquidating its contents. On Aug. 1, 2017, antique dealers from the neighboring town of Silver City came to see what was left.
One of the men, David Van Auker, would later recall at a news conference that he spotted “a great, cool midcentury painting.” They bought it, along with the rest of the Alters’ estate, for $2,000.
Silver City, an old mining town near the Gila National Forest, has a high concentration of artists. So it didn’t take long for someone who recognized the painting’s significance to wander into Manzanita Ridge Furniture and Antiques.
“It probably had not been in the store an hour before the first person came in and walked up to it and looked at it and said, ‘I think this is a real de Kooning,’ ” Van Auker told KOB 4, a TV station in Albuquerque. “Of course, we just brushed that off.”
Then another customer said the same thing. And another.
It was becoming evident that the painting might be worth more than they had originally thought. Van Auker and his partners, Buck Burns and Rick Johnson, hid it in the bathroom....MUCH MORE